Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Pope St. Pius X's death.
And therein lies a tangle of narratives. First, perhaps no other pope fosters such strong reaction, not evenly the recently canonized Pope St. John Paul II. While he was not the first to combat theological modernism, he minted the phrases by which modernism has identified ever since. His 1907 encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis labeled modernism as "the synthesis of all heresies" and forecast dire circumstances if the cancer was allowed to metastasize. Hence the Church embarked on an anti-modernist crusade that lasted, depending on the sources you consult, until the Second Vatican Council. That landmark event in turn has been viewed, again depending on the sources you consult, as an explicit rejection of Pius X's ham-handed authoritarianism. True to form, the reaction itself sparked a counter-reaction; in 1969 Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, fed-up with conciliar reforms, established the Society of St. Pius X. Remaining in schism since 1988 (and Lefebrve's death in 1991), the Society regards itself as not sedevacantist but rather the true (and sole) defender of Catholic orthodoxy.
Twenty years ago, just after Lefebvre's death, I started my doctoral studies in Catholic historical theology. I found the Lefebrvist story fascinating, largely because their Latin Mass devotion and frank rejection of Vatican II seemed so foreign and exotic. Also, as a new convert I had already noticed the varying degrees of fervency Catholics exhibited. The SSPX always occupied the outermost 'fervent' position; nobody outdid them. Or so it seemed--more on that in a bit. Meanwhile, my doctoral faculty regarded them with utter disdain and/or distaste. How could any sane person find them interesting? The Church's theological tides had clearly shifted elsewhere. The prudent theology student would expend her/his energies elsewhere. Forget all that "both/and" Catholic stuff; this was truly "either/or"--and both sides endorsed. EITHER you're with "us" OR you're against "us." For those who get it, profound irony lurketh there....
Digging a bit it became clear there was more to Pius X than met the eye. First, the papal conclave that elected him in 1903 involved, for the last time, the jus exclusivae. A statist interference in church matters, the 'law' presumed that imperial states (Spain, the vestiges of the Holy Roman Empire, or France) possessed the right to appoint favored papal candidates. This "right of exclusion" dated back only to the mid-seventeenth century. It had been exercised only twice in the nineteenth century until Krakow's Cardinal Jan Puzyna use it to defeat the election of Cardinal Mariano Rampolla, the odds-on conclave favorite and Leo XIII's secretary of state. Recently the Krakow archdiocesan archives published notes Puzyna kept during the conclave. Giuseppe Sarto, the archbishop of Venice, emerged over five days from dark horse candidate to conclave favorite. Once elected and convinced to accept, Sarto took the name "Pius X" (Pio Decimo) to honor the long-reigned Pius IX.
At this point it becomes very easy to play theological connect-the-dots and discover the anti-modernist outline of Pius X's pontificate. After all, when you start with that name, what do you expect? (please note the faux sarcasm) Instead, Puzyna's notes remind us that Sarto was elected as a pastoral counterweight to Leo XIII's politically and intellectually extensive pontificate. It's common for papal observers to note that conclaves alternate between the strengths of the popes they elect. Sarto had grown up quite poor before ascending through the episcopal ranks. (This fact did not escape the American Catholic imagination as pressure grew to canonize Pius X, which occurred in 1954. At least one American commentator drew a parallel between Sarto and the mythical American success story of Walter Mitty.)
Pius X's papal motto--Instaurare omnia in Christo ('to restore all things in Christ)--has served as sort of "don't tread on me" yellow flag for traditionalist Catholics. At the time, though, Pius X's words weren't a threat but an inspiration. Long associated with backwardness, Pius X instead initiated new endeavors (something that St. John XXIII, ordained during Pius X's pontificate, never tired of mentioning), such as the codification of canon law. True, he did seek the restoration of Gregorian chant during Mass, but as a means of encouraging and supporting the laity's participation. "Don't pray at the Mass, but pray the Holy Mass" is an encouragement long-attributed to St. Pius X, much along the lines of Leo Durocher's "nice guys finish last" line. Neither one of them said those exact phrases but they nonetheless have become linked to the attitudes the words express. Cementing this was Pius X's encouragement of frequently receiving Communion. The influence of this 1905 decision cannot be overestimated. First, all but the absolutely most hardened ex-Catholics whose childhood experiences predate the Council recall St. Pius X more for this action--inspiring frequent communion--than the anti-modernist oath or the supposed intellectual conformity Pius X demanded. Second, while he surely would not approve of it today, the preconciliar practice of frequent Communion stands behind the "cafeteria Catholic' reality of American parishes today. At Communion everybody goes forward to receive. Granted, they do so in a frame of mind quite different than what St. Pius X sought, but the expectation of receiving Communion traces back to the Venetian cardinal. After all, "restore all things in Christ" involves an encounter, an embrace, of the Lord Himself.
The postconciliar narrative of Catholic freedom and encounter with the modern world has become so ensconced in the American Catholic imagination that we now struggle to appreciate Pius X's restorationist motto. However, surely we grab shreds of it when on retreat, in prayer, and throughout each celebration of Lent. After all, if after the Council the Church and its members should devote it and themselves to ongoing conversion, isn't that in itself "restoring all things to Christ"? Of course, comes the corrective, we don't mean that sort of restoration--rather, our "authentic" restoration (implying that more conservative 'restorations' are at best myopic and at worst flatly wrong) appreciates modern life more fully. But then is that restoring Christ or simply reaffirming our own vision?
The point: for as formidable as he is regarded, St Pius X's pontificate has become a protean concept--something stretched to fit our own firmly-established views. (H/T here to Patrick Allitt who used that phraseology in discussing the American convert priest Isaac Hecker.) There's enough in Pius X's legacy to challenge us all.
Starting with myself. While I would not have admitted it at the time, I came into the faith through St. Pius X. To make a long story short, while surviving middle school life I became aware that both Kansas City and St Louis had high schools named after St. Pius X. (It turns out that his became a popular parish name after his canonization...only to fall into disuse a decade later following the Council.) The name "Pius X" seemed so utterly foreign to my (rather unconscious) Presbyterian ears that I needed to know more. Years later, a college semester studying in Rome provided more answers AND I was able to visit St. Pius X's tomb in St. Peter's basilica. At first Pius X's legacy shocked and angered me--after all, it was so anti-Protestant--but with time I came and have come to appreciate the spirit and vigor of St. Pius X--and how the various Catholic factions manipulate his pontificate. It was with great relief that I returned in 2012, now as a Roman Catholic myself, to pray at his tomb for his intercession.
Finally, yes, this post's title comes from a black gospel classic....one that predates The Blues Brothers. All sorts of old landmarks guide our journey.